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Sarah Bennett and Erika Scharfen met while at graduate school at UC Davis (during a goat husbandry class) and quickly discovered they both shared the same passion for cheese and small farmstead production. Using their experiences growing up on dairy farms and vineyards, plus the technical skills mastered during their studies, they launched Pennyroyal Farmstead in Boonville, California in 2012. Pennyroyal makes farmstead fresh and aged cheeses from the resident goat and sheep, and in 2014 will be releasing it’s first Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from estate grapes as well as opening a tasting room in Boonville, CA. We talked to Sarah and Erika about what it was like to grow up on their family farms, the different kinds of cheeses they produce, and how each goat in the Pennyroyal family is named.
Tell us about your background—how did you become interested in making cheese?
Sarah Bennett: My parents’ house (where I grew up) is in the middle of Navarro Vineyards. When they first started growing grapes and making wine, their house was also the Navarro office, my bedroom was the original mechanic shop, and the winery was an existing barn about 50’ from their house. I grew up in the wine business and learned a lot about wine during my childhood (my first sales calls being in a stroller next to a tasting table) but being an estate vineyard and 910 acre ranch, I also learned a lot about land stewardship, viticulture and management, and just about how to live in the country. My mom is an amazing cook, and we grew up doing a lot of gardening, processing and preserving. When I was a child, some of my best friends were my animals. I also grew up on the Mendocino coast and family outings included going salmon fishing on the Mendocino coast and then preserving the fish, going to a cherry tree farm in Ukiah and then canning cherries for days afterwards. It wasn’t until I was at college and away from country life that I realized all the bounty that is available to you in the country but always for such short seasons. Winemaking, cheesemaking, canning are all ways to relive seasons that have come and gone.
Erika Sharfen: I came from a family background of dairy farming in Sonoma County, and grew up visiting my great grandparent’s and aunt and uncle’s cow dairies as a child. By the age of 12 I knew I wanted to be a dairy farmer and dreamed of taking over one of the family farms. As a student at UC Davis, I was sidetracked from cows when I began working for the University’s goat dairy, and became hooked on their inquisitive and friendly nature. I moved to France after college to expand my dairy farming experience and to train as a cheesemaker. When I returned to California in 2005 to begin my Master’s Thesis, I purchased my first 15 dairy goat kids as the beginning of a herd for a future dairy. The herd had grown to 85 when I moved them to Boonville in 2009 to start Pennyroyal.
You grew up on a family farm—how did this influence your decision to study viticulture and later, animal husbandry?
ES: I credit my grandparents and my great uncle for helping to nurture my interest in dairy farming. In high school I wanted to write my honors physics paper on the principles of milking machine function and the thermodynamics of milk cooling on the farm. My uncle walked me through the components on his dairy and loaned me the books to reference for my paper. I was a nerd who loved animals… farmstead cheese making is the perfect combination of those two things.
What kind of cheeses do you produce at the farm? What’s unique about them?
ES: We produce five styles of cheese: Laychee, Bollie’s Mollies, Velvet Sister, Boont Corners, and Boonter’s Blue. We are a seasonal goat and sheep dairy, so cheeses made in the Spring and early Summer are made from a blend of the two milk types. By late July the sheep have stopped producing milk, so we make the same cheeses but from pure goat milk through the remainder of the season (until mid December, when the goats stop producing as well). Our cheeses are unique in that you can try each of them as either mixed goat and sheep milk or pure goat milk, depending on the season. We also sell our Boont Corners cheese at three different stages of maturity (2 Month, Vintage, and Reserve), so it is possible to taste how several months of ripening can affect appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture. Another unique thing about our creamery is that we use our higher fat evening milk to make our young cheeses, like Laychee and Bollie’s Mollies, who benefit from a higher butterfat as it results in a softer texture and more complex flavor. Our naturally lower fat morning milk is dedicated to our aged cheeses, whose flavor profile is enhanced by the ripening of protein more than fat. Our cheeses reflect not only the seasonality of our milk, but the natural diurnal variation of it as well.
Tell us about the animals on the farm. What do you love about working with them? What are some of the challenges? Does every goat really have a name?
SB: Besides the dairy animals (108 dairy goats and 32 dairy sheep) we also have Babydoll Southdown sheep that we use to graze our vineyards. At Navarro in 1978 we stopped using any synthetic herbicides and in 1979 any synthetic pesticides. When I returned back from college in 2005 we got a small flock of Babydoll Southdown sheep. This breed of sheep is heavy set and has short legs and is built like a football player. By the time they are two years old they don’t climb. Our vineyards at Pennyroyal were designed with sheep in mind. We have 23 acres of vineyards divided into 15 blocks allowing us to rotational graze the vineyards, eliminating our need to hand sucker the vines, thus decreasing the mowing and fossil fuels used, the vines’ water demands by eliminating weeds early and our frost danger in wet and early springs. The sheep fertilize our vineyards as well, and are used to graze our residual hay on our hay fields. We also have a chicken tractor for 150 laying hens that we use on our pastures, vineyards, and compost piles. Our barn is cleaned out and the bedding is composted for a year and then returned to our vineyard and gardens to fertilize our crops.
My favorite part about working with animals is that they generally always want to please you. I’ve learned that if they aren’t doing what you want them to do, all you need to do is look at what you are doing instead, change it, and the situation will generally improve. It’s a good rule for life in general. The biggest challenge of dairy farming is it never stops (except us who give the girls maternity leave for January and February) but for the rest of the years it’s all day, every day. We start milking goats at 6 am, cheese is made from the milk right after milking 7 days a week, and then we don’t finish milking until 8 that same day. This line of work isn’t for people who like to get away!
ES: Absolutely every goat (and dairy sheep too) has a name. In fact most have their names picked out months to years before they are even born…though sometimes a goat is born who just doesn’t look like the name she was going to be given. There is some evidence that dairy animals that have names perform better than those who don’t, though it may easily be that people who tend to name their animals humanize them, and therefore give them a higher level of care that results in the animals performing better. I certainly fall into the category of people who adore their animals. They are my family and I love working with them. They are incredibly intelligent and they are very friendly. The biggest challenge is watching them grow old. The average life expectancy is about 7 or 8 years. I have been working with dairy goats for nearly 16 years now and saying goodbye to an old animal is still the hardest part.
What is like living and working in the Anderson Valley?
SB: Anderson Valley is a very unique small town. The Anderson Valley is only about 1 mile wide and about 20 miles long. It is about 12 miles from the coast as the crow flies, so we are highly influenced by coastal breezes and fog but it can reach 100 degrees during the day in the summer time. I have been on the volunteer ambulance and Fire Department for the last 6 years. Even though everyone is incredibly independent, I am constantly amazed how much people help their neighbors in times of need. We have become the local “goat and sheep” experts and get phone calls weekly about animals in need of help.
ES: The Anderson Valley is a small, rural community, and everyone is supportive of the diversification of farming Pennyroyal Farm has brought to the valley.
Describe a typical day on the farm and on the vineyard.
SB: The best part about working a dairy and working at a winery is there is no “typical day.” It changes every month with what is happening in the vineyard. The two operations really complement each other in that it allows us to keep full-time, year-round employees with benefits versus many monoculture farming operations that only employ seasonal workers. When we aren’t making cheese, our creamery staff cuts and wraps cheese for shipment, or helps the sheep deliver their lambs or prunes the vineyards.
ES: Morning milking at Pennyroyal begins at 6am and lasts about 2 hours. Warm milk is then brought to the creamery for cheesemaking, where is becomes either wheels of Boont Corners or Boonter’s Blue. After morning milking, the goats and sheep are given their breakfast of hay, and pass the day wandering their pasture or chewing their cud. They are fed a second meal in the late afternoon before evening milking commences at 5pm. The evening milk is then taken to the creamery and chilled overnight to pasteurized the following day for Laychee, Bollie’s Mollies, or Velvet Sister. On cool or wet days the goats prefer to sleep indoors, but on warm summer nights they will again wander their pasture after evening milking.
Which of your cheeses is the most popular? Which one is your personal favorite?
ES: Right now more milk is used to make Boont Corners, though because it is made from higher fat milk and the cheese is higher in moisture we actually produce about the same number of pounds of Laychee each week. So those are the two most popular. Vintage Boont Corners is my favorite flavor profile of the cheeses we produce.
Did you know when you were starting out what kinds of cheeses you wanted to make, or were there any happy accidents?
ES: We designed the creamery around making Boont Corners, Boonter’s Blue, Laychee and Bollie’s Mollies, so yes we knew entering the design process what types of cheese we wanted to make. Velvet Sister came about as an experiment making the lactic style Bollie’s Mollies in a rennet style cheese.
What are some of your favorite wine and cheese pairings?
SB: At Pennyroyal we grow Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, and although many of Navarro’s wines go with our cheeses, these two pairings are personal favorites: Navarro’s late harvest dessert wines with our blue, and the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir with the Reserve Boont Corners. I like all our cheeses, just depends what I’m doing with it and what I feel like.
ES: I prefer the flexibility of Boont Corners and Bollie’s Mollies. Either can pair with crisp whites or lighter bodied red wines like Pinot Noir.
What’s the best way to enjoy Pennyroyal Cheese at home? Any favorite accompaniments?
SB: Our figs have just ripened on our tree and our Laychee with a ripe fig is amazing. I enjoy Boont Corners by itself a lot, but I use it on a lot of vegetable dishes, such as roasted cauliflower or zucchini.
ES: I like to experiment with substituting our cheeses into recipes that traditionally call for another kind of cheese or dairy product… like using Boonter’s Blue to make macaroni and cheese, or grating Boont Corners into an apple crisp instead of putting whipped cream on it.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
SB: Tough question. I imagine it would involve food in some way, just not sure how.
ES: I can’t think of anything else I would rather do than dairy farming.